Wednesday 23 January 2019

Ewan MacKenna: Gaelic football is dying - and if the Dublin problem isn't tackled, it will soon be in the ground

2 September 2018; Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton leads the team in the pre match before the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
2 September 2018; Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton leads the team in the pre match before the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

Dick Clerkin had a good one the other day. Taking to Twitter in the aftermath of the All-Ireland final he wrote of the champions: "Dublin are not simply the benchmark Gaelic football team, they are the template to which any sports person should aspire to. Committed drive towards excellence, yet grounded in humility with a sincere appreciation for the opportunities afforded to them."

It made you think that others should really follow this best-practice template by robbing banks to match their GAA funding, forcing their people into the sexual habits of rabbits to up population, get a fan in as Taoiseach to open up the public purse to them and them alone, and then stop the global trend of a shift from rural-to-urban in terms of demographics. Hey presto.

Wait. Maybe Dick was actually being serious?

There is a queue to get into the asylum and cower from the truth on this. On Monday night, Labour senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin went on The Tonight Show and suggested my factual work on this that started over a decade back is insulting. We know there's been a right-wing shift in Irish politics but to hear a member of a party that claims to be socialist stand up for inequality and demand a celebration of those best off is a little troubling. While no expert, he even managed to put their journey down to the gene pool, making us think that come five-in-a-row we may get hints at a master race.

As a politician looking for local votes, he at least has an excuse. But from the long line of ex-Dublin players engaging in PR while pretending it's journalism, to The Sunday Game which has more influence on the thinking in the sport than any other outlet, there's been a boycott of reality. The GAA no longer needs a strong Dublin, but their brand is worth too much to too many to call it out.

People really have lost the plot and there is an important side to all of this. Indeed since Dublin's latest cruise in third gear through the summer, a question has been bouncing about looking for an answer. It's around the idea of praise in terms of what it's for and how much is justified. For instance how much should and does inevitability eat into admiration, and can they even co-exist?

That's the hard part with rating Jim Gavin. The reflex us towards proclaiming greatness based on the wins. But such a term of recognition ought to involve delving into the context of those wins. Here we have a county with the population of a province, with the sponsorship greater than a province due to market share, with the financial support from government of a province, with the GAA funding of a province, who didn't have to write a cheque for a centre of excellence, that was given Croke Park as they didn't invest in their own ground, and that almost exclusively get to play on their own patch.

Considering all that, shouldn't winning be a given bar the odd freak?

The professionalism they bring to their set-up cannot be matched by anyone else thus advantages from fitness to diet to the teaching of physical skill-sets to the training in mental qualities. No one is doubting this Dublin are great, as was the group before them, as will the group after them be. But they should be great. If not, questions would be directed at their board, not just the GAA, as that board even know they are a province rather than a county, as the Blue Wave document actually called on them to be given the voting rights of one.

In terms of natural talent they should have more players than anyone else who are gifted in what cannot be learned, based purely on statistical chance. As for those other coachable skills, sports science and expertise cost, therefore they can afford more of it at a higher level than anyone else too. The end result of such a fix is four in-a-row now, and five in-a-row next year, and so on. Paddy Power even have them at just 1/2 for 2019, and at evens to capture both that and 2020's title.

In modern society there's a great discomfort with actuality though. Just as the eulogy for a recluse inevitably seems to suggest they were the life and soul of the party, in other areas it's as if the truth will somehow diminish the achievement. Thus with Dublin too we exaggerate it by ignoring the how behind the what.

No one is saying the players aren't incredible in their dedication and the volunteers don't work tirelessly. But they don't have a patent on that. Many players from elsewhere have to drive cross-country three times a week to train, with none of the perks, knowing they'll never get the same on-field rewards and off-field gigs, and still they battle on. Volunteers in these places do just as those in the capital do as well, but with the addition of fundraising and knowing there'll be no glory days.

You know the numbers by now but so staggering are they that they are always worthy of repetition. Between 2005 and 2009, the government made €5m available to them and them alone. Between 2010 and 2014, in central games development money, per registered player, Tyrone got €21, Mayo €22, Kerry €19, while Dublin got €274.40. In that category, between 2007 and 2017, Dublin received €16.6m from the association, Tyrone were bang around the average of the rest at €560,000. When their 2016 accounts were leaked, they showed they'd spent €523,954 on office salaries and €134,557 on miscellaneous.

Such numbers just do not exist anywhere else. And when only one person shows to an auction with their wallet, they'll outbid the rest.

The normalisation of this is perhaps what is most galling though. Mistakes happen but to be made aware of them and to continue with them while trying to justify them is frankly outrageous. Had it not been for a freak of a game against Meath in 2010, there would be kids doing their junior cert this year who'd never have been alive for anyone else holding a Leinster title. That competition is finished, and we are now seeing the same on a national scale, while being told to cling to the hope that a team like Mayo might come along every few years through chance and we'll get a close game. All the while the GAA close their eyes when soon you wouldn't be able to move even All Ireland football finals tickets for face value.

It's absurd as when you strip the element of competition from a competition, it crumbles in a vacuum. John Horan may this week have cited the two full All Ireland finals as an example of the health of the game, but we wonder if he went to any of his county's other games this year and swiveled his head. To the half-full Portlaoise for their opener, through to their half-full All Ireland semi-final. The body of the association has cancer and the inability to admit it means it'll be in the ground much sooner. That's not hyperbole.

Speaking to former GAA President Peter Quinn last year, he remembered the beginning of this end, when the tap was turned on in 2004. "At that point Dublin's strength was beginning to show," he said grimly . "The potential was so obvious and there was concern they'd take over as that size would generate huge revenue and huge playing personnel and those elsewhere wouldn't keep pace. So I was surprised to see investment going into Dublin because it came along with no split at intercounty."

Fourteen years later and despite what we all know, nothing has changed. At some point though, even this GAA administration will have to glance at the elephant.

Earlier this summer, the Central Statistics Office released a bunch of population projections that hardly came as a surprise. According to them the Republic of Ireland population could grow to as high as 6.7 million by 2051, with the greatest increases naturally coming in the capital. This followed on from previous data that showed a 5.8 per cent jump in Dublin between 2011 an 2016, as it was the only place to see its numbers grow through both positive internal and external migration and through natural increase. And by 2031 they reckon the greater Dublin area will have another 401,400 people by which time it'll account for 65 per cent of the entire country.

Fifteen places for that massive chunk of the nation, denying so much talent a go, while excessively funding it under the guise of giving more opportunity? And as a consequence reducing the interest and talent of other places due to hopelessness? Was this plan written by a hungover intern? And if so, why is it being defended by the GAA's leaders?

Stephen Cluxton's speech was telling as he brought it up with a desperate denial, and they are all in a bind as they try to play down how much better than everyone else they are, actually demeaning their talent and skill. They can contemplate that conundrum some more when their official airline jet them off.

Cluxton has been part of numerous teams of course and this is the great myth as if this is a one-off group. When Kerry won a four-in-a-row they used 18 players. Times change and it is now much more a squad sport, but even so Dublin used 26 to achieve the same with three newcomers added this year. As further proof, the average age now versus 2015 is lower, and given what we know about time that wouldn't be possible without a significant turnover and freshening up, all to the same ends.

They do it as they can afford to do it. But make no mistake, it leaves as asterisk beside each of these predictable modern-day wins. That's because they all came with a receipt.

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